POWER TRIPS. The new Center for Public Integrity (CPI) study on privately funded congressional travel got big write-ups in the The Washington Post and The New York Times, which both predictably obscured the notable Republican tilt of the information uncovered.
As it happens, I wrote a piece arguing against a blanket ban on private congressional travel a few months ago, back when it looked like folks in Congress were actually scared enough to pass major new ethics reforms (silly me). It's not that there isn't plenty of legalized bribery going on with these trips or that corporate interests don't dominate the field; there is, and they do. It's just that, amidst the golf junkets and Ripon bashes, there actually really are a good deal of worthwhile educational trips funded by private groups that also happen. I wrote about one trip to Ethiopia funded by the International Center for Research on Women, to show Hill staffers (those involved in authorizing and appropriating funds for USAID) various local projects targeted at preventing child marriage and addressing horrific medical conditions like fistula. The trip coincided with the breaking of the Jack Abramoff scandals, and was nearly cancelled when one congressional office after another got cold feet about taking private travel money.
The logical thing, of course, would be for such worthwhile fact-finding missions to be regularly and fully paid for by readily available public funds -- but such funds are in fact constantly in short supply (especially for members' personal as opposed to committee staffers), due to the same dynamic that makes it politically impossible for congressional members to be paid what they actually should be paid. Thus, allowing private groups to fund educational travel -- knowing full well that plenty of corrupt boondoggles will slip by along with the serious trips -- is left as a suboptimal but next-best option. (Other reforms aside from a blanket ban could help curb some of the excesses -- like boosting oversight through a congressional office of public integrity, a measure Democrats pushed for this spring and Republicans killed.) That's my take, anyway. Whatever one thinks of possible appropriate reforms, the CPI report's still worth a look.
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